Above: Colonialists pull down statue of King George.
Official holidays in the United States tend to reinforce false historical narratives. The Fourth of July is one of those holidays and what the official story misses is the reality that must be told. During the decade before the Revolutionary War, colonists ran one of the most effective nonviolence resistance campaigns against corporate power in history.
The Campaign of Colonial Nonviolence: Lessons for Today
Rivera Sun describes this campaign of nonviolent actions by showing that many of the tactics people attribute to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other modern activists were used in an effective campaign by the colonists including boycotts of British goods, replacing them with their own goods; refusing to cooperate with unjust laws, non-payment of taxes, the development of parallel governments and local assemblies as well as rallies, petitions, marches and protests.
Sun writes that the colonists created “some of the most powerful boycotts in nonviolent history . . . called “nonimportation programs,” which decreased British revenue in New England by 88 percent between 1774 and 1775. In the Carolinas, colonists deprived the Crown of 98.7 percent of import revenue. Moreover, in Virginia and Maryland, the rate reached an impressive 99.6 percent participation.”
Benjamin Naimark-Rowse describes three coordinated, nonviolent resistance campaigns in the decade before the war. The first was the 1765 campaign against the Stamp Act where tens of thousands of people refused to pay a tax to print legal documents and newspapers, halted consumption of British goods and shut the ports of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
The second was the 1767 uprising against the Townshend Acts, which taxed paper, glass, tea, and other commodities imported from Britain. Merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia again stopped importing British goods and declared anyone continuing to trade with them as “enemies of their country.” In 1770 Committees of Correspondence were formed to coordinate resistance and share information.
The third campaign was the creation of the Continental Congress, along with provincial congresses, to enforce the rights the colonists declared unto themselves-parallel institutions that created colonial self-rule.
All of these campaigns not only included boycotts and the shutdown of ports, they also included replacement goods create by the colonists. Newspapers were published without the British tax insignia on them and women replaced clothing by making colonial materials and products. Famous protests like the Boston Tea Party were one example, but the revolt was deep. Rivera Sun describes nine-year old New Jersey patriot Susan Boudinot who, when handed a cup of tea while visiting the governor, curtsied, raised the cup to her lips, and then tossed the tea out the window.
Ray Raphael, in “Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past,” describes how the colonists threw British officials out of office and created their own assemblies and institutions:
“[I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority. In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.”
Independence from Britain was not the “founding myth” of a handful of glorified founding fathers, but a revolt of the masses. For example, while Thomas Jefferson is credited as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Bill Bigelow reminds us that: “In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local ‘declarations of independence’ that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.”
African Americans, the Indigenous and Independence
Historian Gerald Horne writes that the picture was even more complex. Slavery may have been the key factor in creating a consensus for independence among some of the wealthiest colonists. The Somerset Case decided in England in 1772 proclaimed there was no legal basis for slavery. The slave plantation owners of the era, along with those in port cities who profited from slavery, saw that if they stayed a colony of Great Britain, they would lose their property, slaves. This pushed the ‘founders’ to support independence. In reality, the revolution for independence and freedom was a counter revolution to prevent the freedom of African American slaves.
Rivera Sun writes that “Some scholars even go so far as to call the Revolutionary War, the “War of Reclamation,” for the revolution had already been won in the hearts, minds, homes, and practices of the people by the time the British Crown sought to reclaim the independent and self-governing colonies.” The extent of the nonviolent rebellion led King George to declare “…The New England Governments are in a State of Rebellion; blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this Country or independent.” In response, colonists organized the Second Continental Congress, appointed George Washington Commander-in-Chief and so began eight years of violent conflict.
Another myth shattered by the reality of history is the myth of George Washington as a hero. During the Revolutionary War, he ordered the slaughter of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous had taken the side of England in the war because they promised to stop the westward expansion which stole indigenous lands. In response, Washington ordered what would be a war crime against “six nations of Indians” in New York requiring “their total destruction and devastation and the capture of as many persons of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now on the ground, and prevent their planting more. . . .Parties should be detached to lay waste all settlements around . . . that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. . . .”
The pre-revolutionary era was a complex time. The Founding Fathers were not believers in democracy, as we are often told, but were elites who used violence to steal property from the indigenous and used slavery to profit from the land. It is important to realize how it was a mass upheaval, or mass movement, that created a nonviolent revolution prior to the war because then we also understand our roles today of being part of a movement for economic, racial and environmental justice.
The Founding Myth Still Impacts the US Today
By not knowing the real story of our founding, many of the difficult issues of that era remain unresolved, such as that US Empire is the child of Manifest Destiny, racism and abuse of African Americans and the Indigenous. Violence and militarism continue to be dominant in US culture. We see that war culture in the Fourth of July itself – bombs bursting in air are represented by fireworks and the military is on parade while there is no celebration of the nonviolent movement of that era.
In July 4th, the Meaning of Democracy, Howie Hawkins describes how US leaders applaud democracy while denying it at home and abroad. The oligarch founders of the nation feared democracy, limited the power of voters and created a government where only 6% could actually vote. Today, US democracy needs major transformations to become a real democracy, and its economy needs to represent not just the 1% but all of us. Hawkins writes, “it is time to declare our independence from the oppressive King Georges of our time in the oligarchy of the super-rich and their bought and paid for political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties.”
Thomas Paine, the author and political advocate of the revolutionary era, who was neither an oligarchic nor usually classified as one of the mythologized founders, put forward a progressive agenda that has gradually been made part of US governance but is still not completed. Chris Hedges describes Paine as “America’s one great revolutionary theorist.” Paine advocated for an egalitarian society that included voting rights for non-property owners, women and blacks. He favored land reform so that land was shared equitably not because royalty had given land to someone they favored. Paine opposed slavery and called for its abolition. He called for healthcare for all, social security and a basic income.
Rather than the egalitarian society Paine envisioned, the United States required a war to end slavery, took more than 100 years to allow women to vote and has become a vastly unequal society which still does not provide a basic income, healthcare for all or retirement security.
Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, given in 1852, remains one of the best political speeches in all of US history. In it he criticizes the nation from the perspective of slaves and much of what he said remains true today:
“. . . your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Applying Colonial Nonviolence to the Issues of Our Era
Patrick Cockburn wrote this week that “We are living in an age of disintegration.” He describes wars around the globe and the disintegration of countries in the Middle East and Africa that used to provide jobs and social services but are now failed states. Cockburn writes that neoliberalism has created enormous wealth divides. These policies have not only created instability in the Middle East and Africa but are doing so in Europe and the United States, where, in the Brexit vote, the UK voted to leave the EU and major political parties are in turmoil.
The Brexit vote shows that neoliberal policies have widened the gap between the elites and the people. While one of the architects of globalization, the unpopular Tony Blair, desperately calls for the “center to hold,” it is evident the center is failing because living standards are shrinking, people are becoming more insecure and the wars Cockburn describes have created mass migrations that add to instability.
The Brexit vote demonstrated a crisis of capitalism that has devolved into a crisis of democracy. It remains to be seen whether the EU elites will face up to the need for changes to assure self-determination, democracy and economic fairness or whether they will fail and face a Brexit domino effect. What is needed is a re-founding of Europe so that it becomes a social democracy that ends the failed policies of neoliberalism and austerity, recognizes the need for democratic self-rule and egalitarian polices that produce economic security for people, and shrinks the wealth divide.
Not only are people showing their opposition to the direction globalization is going but they are doing so in other ways. There have been mass protests in Europe against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In the US last week, 500,000 petitions were delivered to Congress demanding the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Over 2,500 people have joined the No Lame Duck Uprising to stop the TPP from being ratified this fall. These trade agreements are designed to enhance the power of big corporations at the expense of people and the environment as well as to undermine democracy, social services and economic equality.
Economic insecurity is growing. Last week a long-term poll, which tracks anxiety about the economy, found that 71% of people in the US believe the economy is rigged against them. They see that banks, financiers, debt collectors, universities and the government are profiting off of the economic suffering of the 42 million people who have $1.3 trillion in college debt. The crisis of governance and the economy was also visible in the vote in Spain where the Left is building power because of austerity, corporatism and inequality.
This “age of disintegration” is not just economic, but is also the reality of the disintegrating environment and climate change. This week in Boston, Vice President Al Gore’s daughter, Karenna, was arrested for her first time in a civil resistance protest against a pipeline. She was among 23 arrested. In another protest, business owners were arrested over the same pipeline, as were another 26 people in this series of actions. Protest against carbon infrastructure, in an age when science is urging a clean energy economy, is becoming mainstream, common and recognized as an acceptable practice. While we know a shift to clean energy could save millions of lives, this week President Obama approved 1,500 off-shore oil fracking permits instead. Once again, even with the future of the planet at stake, the elites are unable to govern responsibly.
In an interview this week Noam Chomsky described the downsides of globalization that we are currently suffering: the inequality, the lack of power for workers and the growing power of corporations. International trade agreements and institutions are designed not for the people but for transnational corporate power.
People are reacting to the unfairness in the economy and the corruption of government by big business interests. They are reacting in various ways through their vote and various means of protests. Chomsky notes that “Globalisation could be designed so that it’s beneficial to the general population” or designed for “high protection for major corporations, for big pharmaceuticals, media conglomerates, and so on.”
He concludes with the recognition that people have power, “We can be very optimistic. Things like this have happened before and they’ve been overcome. . .There are reactions to problems that are not easy to overcome, but I think there are plenty of possibilities.”
What we should know when we reflect on our history is that successful protest is in our DNA. The nation was founded by an uprising. People organized and took on the most challenging nation of the era. Knowing our true history helps us to correct the mistakes of the past and to know we can build power. As Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”